We know the world largely by means of metaphors, understanding one thing by describing it as something else. The metaphors we live by are embedded in our common speech and thinking, so much so that we simply take them for granted, seldom stopping to reflect on their implications or effects.
In the scientific-industrial age, people in the West came to describe themselves through mechanistic metaphors. The body as whole was imagined as a single machine, with organs that pumped, filtered, circulated, and otherwise processed the fuel it took in. The brain was understood to have a modulating function, overseeing all other functions, although eventually it too came to be cast as a mere mechanism: with the advent of the digital age, our gray matter has found its analogy in the computer.
Because metaphors are so basic to our thinking, it can be hard to recognize how they work to shape our understanding of who we are. It has become seemingly natural to describe ourselves as machines, but of course we are not machines, and we do not come equipped with software. When this description is internalized from the social environment without critical examination, we come to think of ourselves in a way that drives us away from ourselves. To see human beings as machines can easily lead to seeing ourselves and others as objects and to more readily accept that being treated as such is inevitable. Metaphors matter.
In this issue’s interview (“The Embodied Mind”), the cognitive scientist and philosopher Evan Thompson makes the consequences of such misconceptions clear:
The cognitive science version [of the mind] says the mind is a computer—the representations are the software, and the brain is the hardware. Although cognitive scientists today don’t think of the brain works the way a digital computer does, many of them, especially if they’re neuroscientists, still think the mind is something in the head or the brain. . . . But this idea is confused. It’s like saying that flight is inside the wings of a bird. The mind is relational. It’s a way of being in relation to the world. You need a brain, just as the bird needs wings, but the mind exists in a different level—the level of embodied being in the world.
Furthermore, Thompson points out, “What’s important is not just what is inside the brain, but what the brain is inside of—the larger space of the body and culture. That is where we find mind and meaning.”
Like Thompson, Henry Shukman (“The Unfamiliar Familiar”) addresses the tendency to get caught in habitual, taken-for-granted ways of seeing the world. “The world is dynamic and changing; therein lies its freshness,” he writes. “But our ideas about it tend to grow stuck and calcified, even our ideas about the most important things: who we are, how things are, and why the world is the way it is.”
Drawing from the work of the Russian literary theorist Viktor Schlovsky, Shukman describes the process of “defamiliarization,” an artistic practice that renders the habitually familiar in unfamiliar ways, allowing us to see the world anew, free of our fixed understanding of it. Likewise, Buddhism itself, Shukman argues, destabilizes our perception of the world, challenging our fundamental understanding of it—we discover that form, contrary to our habitual view, is “neither permanent, satisfactory, nor endowed with self-existence.”
Like any system of thought, Buddhism revolves around a small set of core metaphors—we “tread a path,” we seek to “awaken.” These are ways of talking about complex things in concrete terms drawn from such everyday experiences as walking on a trail or waking up after a night’s sleep. Such simple metaphors have shaped the life experience of millions for 2,500 years and have served as the basis for the tradition’s rich legacy of thought and practice and culture. Yet this tradition’s richness derives in large part from its capacity to undermine its own core metaphors even as it affirms its faith in them.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.